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SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities - Logo
Emotional mimicry in social context

Emotional mimicry in social context

principal investigator
Michał Olszanowski
Ph.D. / Associate Professor

psychologist, specializing in cognitive and social psychology

Full bio
project value: PLN 331,940
funding source : National Science Center
discipline: psychology
research center: Institute of Psychology
location: Warsaw
duration: 2017 2018 2019 2020

Human faces are important sources of information, which shapes social interaction. Just at a quick glance, people not only can identify others, but they also can deduce other person’s intentions or even personality traits. Facial expressions can provide insight into the emotional state of another person, while imitating these expressions plays a role in forming and maintaining relationships with others. Researchers from SWPS University studied the phenomenon of emotional mimicry, i.e. imitating facial expressions of others, and its psychological consequences.

 

RESEARCH PROJECT

Emotional mimicry in social context


The Role of Facial Feedback and Negative Emotions in Social Judgments and Interactions

 

Research UnitUNI SWPS warszawa wydzial psychologii
Grant AmountPLN 331 940
Funding Sourcencbir

Duration of Research Project: January 2017 - July 2019

 

Human faces are important sources of information, which shapes social interaction. Just at a quick glance, people not only can identify others, but they also can deduce other person’s intentions or even personality traits. Facial expressions can provide insight into the emotional state of another person, while imitating these expressions plays a role in forming and maintaining relationships with others. Researchers from SWPS University studied the phenomenon of emotional mimicry, i.e. imitating facial expressions of others, and its psychological consequences.

Project Objectives

The researchers will examine how emotional mimicry influences judgments about others and how these judgments change in different social situations. How do people know who to trust? Are people more willing to help someone who is smiling or who is angry?

Scientists will also research how a degree of familiarity with others impacts mimicry. They will observe what happens when anger or sadness are caused by persons who have some ties with the subject versus by strangers.

Furthermore, they will study how various expressions of emotion influence actual behavior in social situations, for example, how various expressions of emotion (e.g. joy, anger, sadness) influence behavior of subjects in relation to members of their own social group or to “strangers”.

Results of our study will help to better understand non-verbal social communication. It will also broaden current knowledge on group relations, where members feel some kind of bond, and relations with strangers.

Research Methods

Studies conducted so far have shown that people are more likely to mimic those they like and have a lot in common with (i.e. they belong to the same group or have similar interests). Moreover, people more often imitate expressions of positive emotions as they indicate good intentions of the sender. For example, a smile is a clear signal of friendliness, encouraging to further interaction.

It is assumed that the main purpose of mimicry is to better understand the emotional intentions of others in order to maintain good relationships with them. To better understand the process that stands behind emotional mimicry participants of the study were placed in different social contexts. They were asked to play a number of computer games. The games required the participants to decide whether to cooperate with others or not. The participants were divided into “friends” or “strangers”, in relation to the study subjects.

Another aim of the project is to observe if mimicking negative emotions is also context specific. It has been shown that people are more likely to imitate positive emotions, while anger is rarely imitated. Reflecting someone's anger may antagonize others, which is not a good strategy for maintaining social order. On the other hand, when friends share stories about an unpleasant situation experienced at work, people may want to express support by mimicking friend’s anger. Therefore, in a series of experiments, researchers arranged situations, where expression of anger was clearly not directed toward the observers and where imitation could be attributed to expressing empathy and compassion.

Research Results

The results of this study have confirmed that people much more prone to imitate those with whom they have more in common. Moreover, the study also showed that mimicry contributes to the transfer of emotional states and impact judgments about the senders of the signals. In general, seeing someone smile (especially when this person is known to have similar social attitudes) triggers an imitation response. Furthermore, imitating the smile makes people feel happier and judge the signal senders as more trustworthy. Similarly, but to a lower extent, seeing someone's sadness triggers imitation and makes people experience some sadness, while negatively impacting the trustworthiness judgments.

The researchers have also shown that mimicry affects not only the impressions but also behaviors, for example in games. In arranged game conditions, participants were encouraged to give some of their own points to other participants, hoping that others would reciprocate the gesture in the next round. It turned out that emotions observed by the players and the degree of their social bonds with other participants influenced the number of points they were willing to transfer from their own pool to others. In short, smiles triggered mimicry and the more mimicry occurred between game partners, the more points they were willing to share. In case of sadness, the results were opposite. The more sadness was imitated the fewer points were shared.

It was also observed that the participants adapted their mimicry depending on the situation. When they were asked to judge another person in a brief amount of time, their fascial expressions and mimicry were limited, as compared to the situation when they were asked to share points. This suggests that people unintentionally prevent mimicking facial expressions of their interlocutor, when they are trying to stay objective in their judgements.

Furthermore, the results indicated, that people avoid mimicking anger regardless of the situation, even when anger could be a sign of solidarity and compassion with a wronged friend. This suggests that human emotional mimicry is attuned to imitating positive emotions. Perhaps this is because mimicry is conducive to taking on emotions of others and people prefer to experience positive emotions. Therefore, apart from expressing compassion in upsetting situations, they unconsciously avoid mimicking negative emotions to prevent feeling upset themselves.

Research Team

 
Paulina Lewandowska
 
Agnieszka Ozimek
 
eksandra Tołopiło